Eating And Drinking In Slovenia

Slovenia
Sean McLachlan

Historic sights, art galleries, beautiful countryside – all these are important in a vacation, but one thing you absolutely can’t go without is the food. You have to eat, after all, and a country with poor local cuisine just isn’t going to get many repeat visitors.

Luckily, Slovenia has a distinct cuisine that takes influences from Slavic traditions and its Austrian and Italian neighbors.

The food has a Slavic heartiness to it, with lots of heavy meats, soups and breads. Sausages come in a limitless variety. Pork seems to be the favorite meat, with beef a close second. You can also find venison and game birds on the menu. Despite only having 27 miles of coastline, the Slovenians sure do like fish. Every restaurant I went to had an extensive fish menu. In the mountains you can also get fresh fish from the lakes.

For fast food there’s kebab (no thanks) and burek (yes please!). Burek is a flaky baked pastry filled with various ingredients, usually cheese and/or meat. It’s a bit greasy and heavy, but cheap and good for eating on the go.

Pastries are big for dessert too. A traditional favorite is potica, a rolled up pastry filled with sugary fruit jam and sprinkled with more sugar on top. Walnuts often make it into the mix too. Messy and delicious! Thanks to nearby Italy, gelato is universally available.

%Slideshow-668%Slovenia produces various beers, the most common being two lagers called Union and Laško. Both are good but not particularly notable. There are various microbrews too, including Human Fish Brewery, which produces an excellent stout as well as a Zombie Goat Lager. More interesting are the various liqueurs. I especially liked borovničevec, a blueberry liqueur that’s strong and fruity. Mead is also available thanks to a long tradition of harvesting honey.

Although Slovenia is a wine-growing region that’s beginning to get noticed, I knew nothing about Slovenian wines before I went. Wine writer Rachel Weil recommended Vinakras 2010 Sparkling Teran as a red and the 2011 Pullus Sauvignon Blanc as a white. She also mentioned that the reds were “grape-forward.” Like with most wine terminology, I had no clear idea what that meant. Once I was in Slovenia I discovered that meant the reds often had a pronounced grape flavor, especially the Magolio Zweigelt I brought home for my wife. While these weren’t to my taste (I prefer Rioja) they were well made and I suspect we’ll be hearing more from Slovenian wine in the future.

Being a small country, Slovenia is influenced by its larger neighbors. The Italian presence is especially strong, and you can find pizza and pasta in many restaurants. From Austria you can find strudel filled with nuts, fruit or cheese. This is good news for vegetarians who want to avoid the meat-centric Slavic dishes.

Speaking of meat, the Slovenians love horsemeat, something not very popular in English-speaking countries. When I was in Ljubljana I set out to try some horsemeat. More on that next time!

Check out the rest of my series, “Slovenia: Hikes, History and Horseburgers.”

Coming up next: Horseburgers: Slovenia’s Unusual Delicacy!

Salt, wine, and wealth in Spain’s Basque region

Basque, wine, Rioja, wine tasting
In the modern world we don’t give much thought to salt. We casually pick some up in the supermarket or tear open a packet at a café, but in the past salt was a vital and sought-after commodity. Everyone needed it for preserving food and as a source for iodine. Nobody could live without it and those who controlled its supply became rich and powerful.

The Basque region of Spain was a major supplier of salt thanks to a strange legacy dating back 220 million years. The remains of an oceanic deposit of salt lie close to the surface at Salinas de Añana. People have been digging up salt here for at least 5,000 years. Our hiking group is visiting this valley. We see pipes channeling saline water onto platforms, where the water evaporates and leaves behind a salty crust. The water has 250 grams of salt per liter. By way of comparison, the Mediterranean has only 40 grams per liter. The Dead Sea has 350 grams per liter and is so salty you can float on it.

The salt is ultrapure and highly prized by top restaurants. Despite this, international competition from more affordable brands has led to a decline in business. Fifty years ago there were some 5,500 salt platforms. Now there are only 45. Yet the workers at Salinas de Añana have carved out a niche for themselves and are hoping their traditional extraction process will get the valley named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

%Gallery-124223%Leaving the salt valley behind, we follow the old Salt Trail through rolling fields punctuated by forest. We circle Arreo Lake and come to Fontecha, a town made rich by salt. Back in the Middle Ages, salt meant wealth, and wealth meant power. Two huge towers glower over the little town, erected by rival families from the money and influence the salt trade gave them. Sadly, both are being worked on and are closed to visitors. Instead we stop for lunch at a terraza, the outdoor seating of a local café. Sitting at terrazas is a favorite pastime in all regions of Spain. Sip some wine, talk to friends, and watch the world go by. It’s a nice way to spend an afternoon or relax after a hike.

More wine comes that night when we visit Bodega El Fabulista in the hilltop town of La Guardia. This is in La Rioja region, where Spain’s best wine comes from. An employee takes us down into the cool cellars, where vaulted stone ceilings shelter orderly rows of oaken barrels. The air is a constant 11-13°C (52-55°F) and 85% humidity. The barrels are made of various types of oak to lend the wine distinct flavors. The amount of time the wine is left in the barrels is critical for its rating: crianza wine spends a minimum of 12 months in oaken barrels, reserva needs 15 months, and gran reserva spends 5 five years in the winery and at least two years in the barrel.

This is all very interesting, but I’m getting anxious to sample some good old Spanish vino. I have some more waiting to do because as we stand glass in hand, the wine temptingly close, we’re treated to another lecture. This time it’s about tasting wine. When a waiter opens a bottle for you and pours out a little for you to check, there’s no need to actually drink some. Smell it to make sure it hasn’t turned to vinegar, and look at it to make sure no bits of cork are floating in it.

Next we examine the wine’s “crown”. If you tip the wine a little while holding it over a white surface, you can examine its edge. The color tells you how old it is. Young wine has a purple edge. As the wine ages it gradually darkens, until with gran reserva it looks brown. Finally we’re allowed to taste it, and everyone holds forth on their observations about its accents and flavors and subtlety. I suppose I could too, but I know very little about wine (I’ve always tasted it to check it, and until now I had no clear idea what crianza meant) so I’ll spare you the pontification and just say that to my uneducated palate, Rioja wine, especially that from El Fabulista, is delicious.

Wandering through the narrow, winding streets of this medieval town we see that wine, like salt, meant wealth and power in the old days. Many houses are adorned with ornate family crests, and the town gives off an aura of money and social standing. Rioja wine is drunk all across Spain. While the salt from Salinas de Añana has become a specialist product for connoisseurs, Rioja has a major market share in a country that demands quality wine.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.